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NEWS | Sept. 13, 2010

National Guard leaders honor newest Serbian officers

By Army Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill, National Guard Bureau

BELGRADE, Serbia, - Serbia's 130 newest officers graduated in a national ceremony in front of Parliament as National Guard leaders saluted here Saturday.

Air Force Gen. Craig McKinley, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, Army Maj. Gen. Gregory Wayt, the adjutant general of the Ohio National Guard, and other Guard leaders were among distinguished international guests reviewing the latest class of officers to emerge in Serbia's transforming armed forces.

"The youngest second lieutenants that stand before us - along with their younger counterparts, military academy cadets - constitute the main body of the future of our defense system," Serbian President Boris Tadic said from the steps of the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia.

The Serbian armed forces are transforming from a conscript to a professional military - a process the Ohio National Guard has contributed to through its pairing with Serbia under the 62-nation National Guard State Partnership Program.

Serbian Minister of Defense Dragan Sutanovac invited McKinley to attend the graduation of the 130th and 131st classes of the 160-year-old Military Academy during a February visit to Quarters One, the official residence of the chief of the National Guard Bureau at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington, D.C.

"I hope these new officers understand that the partnerships with the United States are designed to enhance both our countries' national interests, and that we ... can learn a lot from them, too," McKinley said.

Thousands thronged the streets of this ancient city and many more watched on television as Tadic, Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic, ministers, military officials, state and military delegations of the United States, Italy, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the diplomatic corps, representatives of the European Association of Military Journalists and numerous distinguished Serbian and foreign guests welcomed the future leaders of the Serbian military.

"Today is the day to remember all innocent victims of the terrorist attacks in New York which took place on 11th September 2001," President Tadic reminded the new officers.

"In foreign policy we are ... doing everything to build anew and rebuild old bridges of cooperation, friendship and understanding," the president said. "Restoration of political and economic partnership will be the focus of public policy because it is good for the state and our citizens.

"To abandon such a path would be very damaging and lead the country into isolation and complete economic uncertainty and security risks to the state with unforeseeable consequences."

Since the Ohio National Guard and Serbia formalized their partnership in 2006, the two have conducted more than 75 exchanges.

"The visit from General McKinley and our very close friend General Wayt means a lot to us," Sutanovac, the defense minister, said after the ceremony. "It means a lot for Serbia ... on the friendship level and also on a military-to-military level."

Ohio and Serbia participate in training, education and other joint activities, including noncommissioned officer development.

"We hope to have some kind of help from the Ohio National Guard and the U.S. to form military base for peacekeeping operations," Sutanovac said.

He called Serbia's relationship with Ohio one of the best of 50 cooperation arrangements between the Balkan republic and other countries.

"We had a difficult past in the last decade," he said. "But we had a lot of ... very good historical relationships - in the First World War, in the Second World War - and we are willing to rebuild this trust," he said, predicting a greater relationship.

Ohio National Guard activities this week to assist Serbian forces included exchanges on senior and company level NCO roles and responsibilities, training base planning and development, military medical skills and cockpit resource management involving more than two dozen Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen at the NCO and officer level.

The graduation ceremony included flyovers by Serbian jets and helicopters, drill and ceremony and the honoring of distinguished graduates.

(Editor's Note: The Republic of Serbia Ministry of Defense contributed to this report.)